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Yerevan, Day 4: Latvia’s Suharevs and Britain’s Smith fit and firing at European Championships

Two weightlifters whose careers were stalled by physical and mental setbacks had a day to remember at the European Championships in Yerevan, Armenia.

Ritvars Suharevs from Latvia, who has had surgery on both shoulders since finishing sixth at the Tokyo Olympic Games and now has to have a third operation, won a tense men’s 73kg when he just managed to deny Spain’s David Sanchez a victory from the B group.

There was only 1kg between the top three finishers Suharevs, Sanchez and the Olympic bronze medallist Mirko Zanni from Italy, whose only failure was his final attempt at 182kg.

Earlier Zoe Smith put in her best performance for two and a half years to win Britain’s first medals of the Championships within weeks of “everything going terribly” when she was suffering anxiety and mental health problems.

Smith, who has also had serious shoulder trouble during her long career, took gold in clean and jerk and bronze on total in the women’s 64kg, in which Nuray Gungor won Turkey’s second title of the week.

Suharevs was full of praise for his coach Eduard Andruskevics, back with Latvia after a year in charge of Saudi Arabia’s team, and physio Arnis Noveicuks for helping him back to full fitness after surgeries that followed the Tokyo Games in 2021 and the European Championships in Albania last May.

“They are the best team, they have given so much time to me,” said Suharevs.

“We prepared for this not just one month but for four months – I owe them so much.

“In all that time I didn’t speak to anyone, I only focused on preparing for this.”

Suharevs had training camps in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Estonia and Armenia, and his hard work paid off.

He will have to have a third operation, though, because of a rotational problem in his right shoulder, he said.

Suharevs made five of his attempts to finish 152-184-336.

Sanchez made six from six for 150-185-335, and Zanni – who came out first in clean and jerk after winning the snatch – made 155-180-335.

Albania’s Briken Calja had a third straight bombout, all in world or continental championships, and never looked like making any of his snatches at 151kg and 152kg.

Bozhidar Andreev of Bulgaria was third in snatch, Yusuf Genc of Turkey won the clean and jerk gold on 186kg and Max Lang of Germany was third.

In the women’s event Gungor finished on 99-120-219 ahead of the Ukrainian Mariia Hanhur, who made only two good lifts for 98-116-214.

Britain’s double Olympian Smith failed with her final attempt at 122kg, which would have put her above Hanhur, but still surprised herself by making 93-121-214.

“To be honest, when I first started preparing for this I didn’t expect anything,” Smith said.

“I’ve really been struggling with some strange anxiety, yips, a mental health issue, particularly in the snatch and I barely snatched more than 80kg in training for long while (her best is 100kg).

“In the first three months of the year it was going terribly and my goal at that point was just to put some lifts on the board.

“But training has got better in the past month, probably because I relaxed a bit more and didn’t pressurise myself so much, and I started to think I could maybe put in a good performance.

“It wasn’t my best lifting ever but I’m getting there, I will be back.”

Smith suffered a devastating shoulder injury that kept her out of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and had to work part-time to survive when Britain lost funding for weightlifting after Rio.

Funding became available again before Tokyo, where Smith finished eighth – two places better than London 2012 – and the support has remained.

“That’s all down to Emily Campbell’s fantastic performance (in winning silver) – she secured us that support,” said Smith.

Smith’s next Olympic qualifier is likely to be at 59kg, at the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships in Saudi Arabia in September.

As time goes by Smith, who will be 29 next week, is thinking about her future in the sport.

She has jointly opened the East London Weightlifting Club in Bethnal Green, London with Britain’s former head of coaching Giles Greenwood and her team-mate Fraer Morrow – who is recovering from injury and hoping to start on the Paris qualifying path at 49kg at the IWF Grand Prix in Cuba in June.

“That’s three classes a week… the older I get, the more I’m looking at coaching as another avenue,” Smith said.

“I’ve given my life to this sport and it might be a love-hate relationship but the love wins and it would be silly to ever leave it.”

Smith’s “support system” watched her performance on livestream from London – “mum and dad, my boyfriend Matt and my black Labrador Luna”.

She was off to celebrate with a nice meal with her long-time friend Anni Vuohijoki from Finland, who retired after finishing ninth on 202kg, ending a career that began in 2012.

By Brian Oliver, Inside the Games

Photos by and Brian Oliver